Antipoverty activists challenge candidates to dismantle the poverty machine on COVID supplement anniversary
50 years on from the Henderson inquiry it must be the first and highest priority of any politician to ensure everyone has enough to live. There is no other moral position.
The welfare system is killing people. For the millions of us who rely on Centrelink payments to live, and those who need support but are excluded, the social “safety” net is nothing but a well-oiled poverty machine, creating it, trapping people in it, and harming our mental and physical health. It is unsustainable. We cannot continue on like this any longer.
Included below: 2022 election priorities and demands, background and statistics on social security and unemployment, comments from Antipoverty Centre spokesperson Kristin O’Connell, policy launch event details.
Two years ago today the government lifted millions of people and their kids out of poverty overnight, with the Coronavirus Supplement providing an extra $275 a week to some income support recipients and bringing the base JobSeeker rate to the poverty line. They showed just how easy a political choice it can be.
In successive decisions taken since that day, both major parties have returned to their habit of cruelty towards the nearly 1 million people who still depend on an unemployment payment to survive. They have repeatedly shown their hatred and disdain for poor people: from slashing payments back down to half the poverty line, to ratcheting up the pointless and punishing requirements inflicted on most who are unemployed.
These changes follow a decades-long trend of government choosing to ratchet up punishment of people suffering the consequences of its own decision to maintain a pool of unemployed people. Now, the people left behind on JobSeeker are overwhelmingly experiencing structural unemployment,1 made worse by the disadvantages imposed by entrenched poverty.
Those elected to represent us cannot continue to ignore our poverty, to demean us and say it does not need to be measured. We hear every day from people who are breaking down.
It has been 50 years since prime minister Billy McMahon launched the Commission of Inquiry into Poverty, later extended by Gough Whitlam. The social security system as it exists today is a shameful legacy that does not live up to the bipartisan project they started. It is time that the government again works to understand and address poverty. They must dismantle the machine they created.
With few differences between the Labor and Liberal social security policies in this election, we are urging minor parties and independents to wield the power they may hold in a hung parliament. We call on all MPs and candidates to make sure concrete, urgent action to improve the lives of people in poverty is a top priority in the event they are negotiating with a party seeking to form government. We ask that you listen directly the real experts – people who need income support to survive – ahead of the paid advocates who too often fail us.
There is extraordinary community support for payments above the poverty line, including in marginal seats. We urge candidates to improve the lives of 5 million people and their kids by committing to:
Increase income support payments to at least the Henderson poverty line.
Abolish Work for the Dole.
Develop a new measure of poverty that is fit-for-purpose in the 21st century.
We invite all election candidates, people living in poverty and allies to our online policy launch event on Wednesday 4 May 2022. We will provide an overview of and rationale for our proposals, answer questions and discuss how to talk to others about why change is urgent. Please register to receive the event link.
See below for more information about these priorities and statistics about poverty and welfare.
Media contact: 0413 261 362 / media at antipovertycentre.org
Quotes attributable to Antipoverty Centre spokesperson and Disability Support Pension recipient Kristin O’Connell
People on Centrelink payments were living in poverty, stretched beyond belief – and then the cost of basic goods began to soar.
Though our so-called political leaders may try, there is no denying we’re facing a poverty crisis that’s affecting people both in and out of work. As we saw in 2020, the fastest, most effective way to provide relief to those on the lowest incomes is through the social security system.
We’ve been offered little hope by the major political parties. They’ve taken a bipartisan approach to constructing a ruthless poverty machine that grinds us to dust. Their policies offer scant differences for most of us on Centrelink payments.
But in this election we see the potential for a historic number of minor party and independent candidates take power. Those who seek their community’s support to represent them in Canberra have a moral obligation: return that support by meaningfully improving the lives of the people in your community who are worst off.
Whether it’s payment rates or unfair and dangerous requirements, we must work together to build a safety net that is genuinely safe. There is no moral position that leaves a single person on this continent in poverty, punished for unemployment that is designed into the economy.
Some might think our demands are radical. They are not. Some will claim our demands are impractical. They are not. We are here, offering our time and expertise to work with any willing politician or advocate to break the poverty machine.
Antipoverty Centre election priorities and demands
Regardless of who forms in government, they must totally transform their attitude and approach to welfare. Instead of a system used as a tool of punishment, the social security system and the economy more broadly must place care at their centre.
We have developed a wide range of proposals that tackle the poverty machine from many angles. But change cannot be incremental – every idea we have put forward is designed to create substantial, meaningful relief to people who have been worn down for too long by government cruelty.
Information about our three headline demands are included below, as well as a list of additional proposals that will be released in the coming days.
The rate: increase JobSeeker and other welfare payments
Immediately increase all income support payments to at least the Henderson poverty line (by household composition) until a new measure of poverty is developed that is fit-for-purpose in the 21st century.
Peg all payments to the HPL until this work is completed, with payments increased at the current frequency of every 6 months.
The Disability Support Pension must be set at least at the HPL +25% to reflect the higher cost of disability to achieve the same standard of living.2 These costs are almost entirely unaccounted for by the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which only supports around 12% of disabled people and in almost all cases excludes many essentials, such as housing and medication.3
Remove partner rates, which apply a financial penalty to people in a relationship and contribute to the conditions that trap people in unsafe homes.
Immediately increase the remote area allowance from the current $10 a week to a meaningful level based on input from experts in the absence of recommended food price controls.4
The Henderson poverty line is the only established “poverty line” in Australia and is based on work completed in the 1960s and 70s.5 It has been regularly updated by Melbourne University for five decades.
In 2020 an ACOSS report showed that even when payments were at the HPL, 33% of people still regularly skipped meals and 40% couldn’t afford adequate healthcare.6
The Disability Support Pension must not be rolled into other working age payments, which are not intended to act as lifelong support. The DSP must be improved so that disabled people are more easily able to access it.
A related housing assistance payment proposal will be released in the coming days.
Understanding poverty: Investigate the nature and extent of poverty in contemporary Australia
It is vital that work to develop a new measure of poverty is not used to delay the urgently needed increase in welfare payments. That is why our first recommendation is to use the best available measure of poverty we have – the Henderson poverty line – to set payment rates in the interim.
Develop a new measure of poverty that is transparent, based on real living costs for people at the low end of the income scale and that ensures a fair standard of living. The purpose of any investigation or inquiry is not just to determine how many people are affected by or living in poverty, but to determine a new, robust poverty line.
Specific work tailored to understand and measure living costs and poverty levels for disabled people, to be used to set the Disability Support Pension rate.
Specific work tailored to understand and measure living costs and poverty levels in remote communities, to be used to set any remote area allowance and guide investments in public infrastructure and labour market programs.7 A substantial amount of related work has already been done – the process needs to incorporate and be led by the existing knowledge, leadership and recommendations from First Nations-controlled work, rather than redo that work.
Establish an independent body responsible for reviewing and updating the poverty line on a regular basis using transparent methodology developed as part of this process. After the new poverty line is developed, income support payment rates should be tied to this figure rather than other indexation methods.
Note: All existing poverty measures are flawed.8 By developing a transparent method that is better able to assess what is required to maintain a fair standard of living, we will establish a poverty line that is responsive to meaningful changes in living costs that would arise from other public investments, such as housing, health and transport. For example, significant changes in the housing market may see the poverty line reduce.
Modern slavery: Abolish Work for the Dole
The most immoral and dangerous ‘mutual’ obligations program is Work for the Dole, which exploits people’s labour without providing a path to employment while displacing real jobs. People surviving on half the poverty line are forced to work for 42 cents an hour – the value of a travel allowance that has not increased in decades. It must be abolished immediately, including any rebranded version of the program that may be introduced when jobactive transitions to Workforce Australia in July 2022.
Immediately make Work for the Dole voluntary (as was done with the Community Development Program last year) and conduct a safety audit of all participating sites.
Provide a JobSeeker supplement to people who continue in the program on a voluntary basis that ensures they receive at least the equivalent of minimum wages for their work.
In consultation with people in Work for the Dole and advocates, develop and implement a program to transition existing Work for the Dole sites out of the program and create sustainable jobs.
Existing Work for the Dole host sites should be given the option to apply for government funding to support the continuation of jobs being done by WftD participants but paid at award wages. This funding should be provided on the basis that they are sustainable jobs that could be advertised in the open market, but should be reserved for existing Work for the Dole participants. To avoid replicating problems with other wage subsidy programs, there must be a commitment that employment will continue for a minimum period beyond the life of initial funding. A pathway should also exist for host organisations to apply for additional funding or grants at that point in time. All people employed through such a program must be covered by OH&S standards, insurances, etc that apply to any other employee.
Existing sites that do not have meaningful work available or are unsuccessful in securing funding to pay WftD award wages may continue to provide genuine volunteering options for people on payments who enjoy and want to continue the activities they’re engaged in. All volunteers must be covered by OH&S standards, insurances, etc that apply to any person who is not in the social security system.
‘Mutual’ obligations are harmful, funnel billions of public money to poverty profiteers and have abysmal outcomes. Compulsory participation requirements do not get people into sustainable jobs. They should not exist, and our related employment services proposal provides an alternative model.
Other policy priorities
We will be making more information available for each of the items below. Check this page or our social media for updates. These will also be covered at the policy event on 4 May.
Voluntary, high quality employment services in the public sector
Protecting people through the transition from jobactive to Workforce Australia (the new employment services model)
Rental and housing assistance payments
Payment and concessions eligibility
Allowed earnings, income free area and taper rates
Income control programs
Employment, job security and labour market programs
Centrelink staffing and process improvements
Robodebt and debt collection practices
Data, transparency and measuring unemployment
Related public investments
Background and key statistics
Click here to download a more in-depth background document containing additional statistics and links to all sources for data included in this section.
There are about 950,000 people on unemployment payments (JobSeeker and Youth Allowance Other), about 1.6 million people on other working age payments and 2.5 million people on the age pension.
In April 2021 the government cut JobSeeker, the most common working age payment, down to $310 a week. It is now $321 per week or $46 a day – about half the poverty line.
More than 203,000 (21%) of people on unemployment payments are employed.
There are about 23 people who have been on an unemployment payment for more than 12 months for each entry level job advertised in February 2022 (this does not account for competition from other applicants who are not on a payment or are short-term unemployed).
Using DSS data and reports from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, we have highlighted that of about 1 million people with ‘mutual’ obligations who are forced to use employment services (jobactive and Disability Employment Services) 477,000 are disabled.
110,000 people on the JobSeeker unemployment payment are parents or primary caregivers.
Antipoverty Centre analysis of ABS and Department of Social Services data shows that while the unemployment rate has not been this low since before the global financial crisis in 2008 when it was also 4%, the proportion of working age people who rely on an unemployment payment has nearly doubled – from 3.3% in mid-2008 compared to about 5.9% today.
We have compared DSS data to show that the number of people who rely on JobSeeker (formerly Newstart) has increased by 41% to 786,139 people (83.84% of all people on JobSeeker) compared to 557,395 before the pandemic.
A November 2021 Ipsos poll found 65–74% support for JobSeeker payments to be above the poverty line in Liberal-held marginal electorates. The electorates polled were Boothby, Swan, Longman, Blair and Dobell. Between 49% and 60% of voters in the five seats said they would consider changing their vote to a party that would lift the rate above $69 a day.
About the Antipoverty Centre
The Antipoverty Centre was established in May 2021 by people living on Centrelink payments to counter problems with academics, think tanks and others in the political class making harmful decisions on behalf of people they purport to represent.
We have deep expertise in poverty, disadvantage and unemployment, because we live it. Our goal is to help ensure the voices and rights of people living in poverty are at the centre of social policy development and discourse. We believe there should be no decision made about us without us.
The Antipoverty Centre is not aligned with any political party and does not accept funding that places political constraints on our work.
Structural unemployment means the people who are not working are unable to do the jobs that are advertised. This can be because the jobs require particular skills or are in a different geographical location. Long-term unemployed people largely comprise older people, disabled people and parents, meaning many jobs are unsuitable for safety reasons or because they clash with caring responsibilities.
Vu, B., Khanam, R., Rahman, M. and Nghiem, S., ‘The Costs of Disability in Australia: A Hybrid Panel-Data Examination’, Health Economics Review, 10/1 (2020), 6, https://doi.org/10.1186/s13561-020-00264-1.
There are 502,000 people on the NDIS of the 4.3 million people with disability according to the National Disability Insurance Agency. See: https://data.ndis.gov.au.
Australian Council of Social Services, ‘Survey shows increased JobSeeker payment allowing people to eat regularly, cover rent and pay bills’ [media release], June 2020, https://www.acoss.org.au/media-releases/?media_release=survey-shows-increased-jobseeker-payment-allowing-people-to-eat-regularly-cover-rent-and-pay-bills-2.
The nature of local economies in remote communities means a more targeted and higher level of investment in jobs programs is required to maintain a fair standard of living over time. For example, in an area with higher population density, access to a public housing property and/or housing assistance payment is likely to be sufficient to maintain a fair standard of living. By contrast, remote communities may not have resourcing for housing to be maintained. Investment in public sector jobs that provide these services and incorporate skills development would be one way of improving the sustainability of housing over the long-term. So in remote communities, it should be understood that regardless of income support rates, an adequate standard of living can only be maintained with significant levels of direct investment in infrastructure and programs that support longer term needs, and that create the jobs and skills base to support those needs. The needs of specific communities should be determined by those communities and funded by the federal government. In terms of poverty alleviation, these would include housing, health services, education, food security, etc.
Limitations include the reliance on relative poverty measures used internationally that do not account for significantly higher housing costs in Australia. In relation to the HPL, the original baseline figure does not reflect the costs of items considered standard today, such as internet and mobile phones.